By Frank Wessling
A new school year begins soon. Here’s an idea for teachers who might still be looking for a project. This one will challenge students in sociology, psychology, history, religion, finance, business and current affairs — almost any field of study outside the natural sciences.
It would fit best where religion is taken seriously, religious leadership in particular.
The idea is to investigate and flesh out the meaning of “culture” as that term has been used by recent popes. In a speech last week during his visit to Brazil, Pope Francis spoke of a “culture of selfishness and individualism.” He also mentioned a “culture of solidarity,” something that seems to be emerging as a theme of his papacy.
Pope John Paul II was an earlier champion of “solidarity,” but he also introduced the “culture of life” / “culture of death” contrast.
These phrases are catchy, easy to remember, but how much meaning is in them? What good are they if they aren’t poked and prodded open for particular examples operating in the lives of real people? This is where they become useful as study projects.
“Culture of selfishness,” for example, is something any child can see and knows from experience. It’s not in the abstract air of talk about the divine trinity or salvation or grace. Everyone has felt the pain of rejection, a toy jerked away by a bully, ignored by the in crowd. Why do these things happen? What supports them?
Do the same kind of things spread out from the personal to the larger world of city, business, club and nation? Where are they seen?
Students could set up debates between the party of solidarity and the party of individualism to see what values exist in each. Or the question could be raised: Does the term “individualism” make sense in human life, especially in a religious perspective? Are we no more than individual rocks merely sitting next to each other? We are certainly distinct, one from another, but isn’t relationship, personhood, at least as important as our separateness, if not more so?
Thinking and working on questions such as these could easily fill a semester of school work.
Pope Francis asked “all people of good will” to “never tire of working for a more just world.” A sense of injury over selfishness should not be left on the preschool playground or confined to the personal alone. We ought to remain sensitive in this respect throughout life and in all directions. We need to let it help us judge everything about society and its workings.
As adults we should feel some of the pain of people unemployed through no fault of their own. We should feel the loss felt by a mother whose medical bills lead to bankruptcy. What we do about such distress in the social body will be debatable and varied but we will always do better when we stay in touch — in touch — with each other in ways as personal as possible.
A culture of justice and peace is the goal. Students of all ages can and ought to prepare for it.